Summer’s Sweetest Scent

I sense it the moment they open.  The air is instantly different.  Heavier with fragrance, yet lighter and warmer with summer’s sweetest scent.   It is as if the world has stopped.  And I am encapsulated within a gossamer cocoon, spun of the perfume of tiny yellow blooms peeking out shyly from among the silvery green leaves of its tree.

You cannot even see them, until looking close.  Close enough to notice their bright yellow eyes, their sweet scent almost visibly aloft in pale waves upon the summer’s evening air, proclaiming dreamily that summer is here.

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I’d love to bottle their sensory beauty, corking it carefully airtight, and displaying it reverently upon a shelf.  But it wouldn’t be enough to just look at it.  I wouldn’t be able to resist its summery magnetism, opening it slowly with its soft scent taking me back to June, no matter the month.

One summer evening years ago, as they were just beginning to unfurl their fragrant blooms, I thought there could be nothing more perfect than cutting a few branches to put in a vase in my house.  I imagined their perfume lightly scenting my entire house, waking me in the mornings with their sheer, veiled aura.  But after only a few hours, their scent had fermented into something hotly putrid and overpowering.  I’m not sure if it was their anger at being cut from their mother trees or the extremely close proximity, but I quickly realized that some things are better left unrestrained, wild and floating freely on the hint of a summer breeze.  That they just cannot be bridled and harnessed into a vase indoors.  They must be aloft upon the breeze, their yellow scented pollen riding happily to destinations unknown.  Their strong scent diluted with the warmth of the air, moving and swirling their fragrance here, there and everywhere.

Of all the many scents in the world, I know it is my favorite. It is memories of small towns in summer, of tall grass growing green in the hay fields, swaying with the breeze like a loosely-threaded tide.   It is memories of summer concerts, the music rising and mingling with their perfume upon the still summer air.  Of barbecued ribs, and warm evenings not yet disturbed by the hum of mosquitos, serenaded with its sweet scent upon the dusk.  It is the feeling of night’s coolness slowly filtering across our little valley from the wet rushing of the river, dampening the grass and the day’s memories with dew.  And in the morning, its perfume rises again, lifted from its tiny yellow petals to be wafted upon the light air for another day.

How I wish it lasted all summer, this perfect essence of fragrance.  Ushering us into and out of summertime, like a graceful doorman, visible with the first opening of the glass door to summertime, but almost unnoticeable the remainder of the summer with his well-trained etiquette and quiet existence.  Eventually they would escort us out of summer without even a goodbye, only the faint fading of their scented beauty growing slighter and slighter, until we no longer even miss their presence.

Alas, we are blessed with but a week of heaven in June.  Maybe that makes its arrival all the sweeter, and its exit all the more lonely in its abrupt end.  Its short-lived aromatic culmination something relegated to just memory again for another year

So as the lovely season of the fragrant Russian Olives draws to an end, may you find the time to be still, soaking up the most of what comes around just once a season.  May you enjoy the sweet scent of summertime upon the warm breeze and may you relish the many blessings summer brings.

*As a footnote, I feel I must tell you that the Russian Olive tree is an outlaw.  It is a foreign species that gained notoriety for its overtaking of western river banks since it was introduced to the US in the late 1800’s.  But in its defense, it is without a doubt, a scrappy survivor.  With shoots of sharply-thorned branches hurtling forth from its trunk almost daily, it doesn’t mourn for the weak.   Their roots ground them in odd places, unfit for other trees.  They thrive in sand and poor soil, reaching deeper and deeper for water and nutrients. And according to multiple sources, their roots can produce their own nitrogen, allowing them to grow even in nutrient-deprived soil.  They have a bad habit of out competing our native trees and shrubs in wild areas and they enlist the help of our feathered friends, who gorge upon the tree’s ripened berries, to disperse their seeds.  The Russian Olive is currently classified as an invasive species in Colorado and 29 other states.  For this reason,Colorado banned the sale of Russian Olive trees within the state to its residents in 2002.

Prelude to Summer

The first to bloom were the purple irises in a large clump.  From chiffon-shrouded buds, they curled their purple petals open, revealing a hint of glimmering gold.  They stood tall, their grape fragrance catching you just as you passed by, causing you to look again, surely that grape scent hadn’t come from them?  But it had, and as a slight breeze carried their fragrant symphony delicately forth, the bees buzzed and hummed, enjoying summer’s first taste of song.

Then it was a tight ball of a peony bud, bursting open with its huge, single petals as if proclaiming, “Look at me!  I am the first of the peonies, none can surely be as magnificent!”  And they may not be, because nothing is as amazing as that first peony exploding into bright bloom in the garden, no matter its color, its size or its type.  From atop strong, tall stems, my first-born peony of the summer looks across its counterparts in the garden, crowning itself with a golden center of bright stamens.  And nothing quite prepares you for the disappointment as its concerto quickly fades and one by one its petals lose their grip, and flutter to the ground.  Their beautiful interlude just a memory, as its dark petals stain the rocks pink with morning dew.

From tight-coiled cones, my white allium were next on stage.  Their stems swelled and swelled until one morning, feathery white headdresses emerged.  Theirs was a soft minuet formed with the slight scent of an onion and chive-like stalks, waving gently in the breeze.  And their small clumps throughout my garden performed long-blooming solos in white.  The only white blooms in my garden, they warrant a standing ovation for their brave deviance from the bright colors that take over later in the summer.

Without intermission, an heirloom yellow shrub rose performed a final, golden overture among its deep green, glossy leaves.  The morning sun’s light setting their petals aflame. In an instant, they seemed to go from bud to bloom to flailed petals, scattering on the ground below.  A brief, yet lovely, sonata of color, fragrance and thorns.  Here now, gone tomorrow, nothing but a golden dream blurred sharply in our minds.

There are certain times in life where the work just must stop, the music must be heard and the world’s most beautiful moments must be applauded.  The weeding could wait.  The watering could wait.  These were times to look over the first of my blooming bounty, cherishing the very magnificence of an iridescent, silken petal tempted open by the sun’s warm encouragement.  This was a time to watch in wonder as butterflies descended from windy heights, swirling madly, but somehow ending upright atop a pollen-encrusted bloom.  This was a time to feel excitement like goosebumps on my arms, for the magical, visual sound that is just beginning, each new bloom an instrument, only just refraining at the final stanza of their prelude.

And as all these instruments of a springtime garden came together, a late spring orchestra culminated in one grand crescendo, diminishing back down with sweet, soft notes . . . promising a symphony yet to come.

Spring’s Brave Dream

There’s just something about the first.  The first fuzzy bud on a branch.  The first green leaf uncoiling.  The first shoot bravely sprouting out of the ground.  The first sweet, swelling stem, followed miraculously by a first bloom.

Spring is full of firsts.  Miracles that seem to arise out of nowhere.

I had been taking note of my newly-visible crocus sprouts pushing their way out of the cool dirt.  I hadn’t been watching closely enough, it turns out, because without warning, the thin, grass-like stalks suddenly burst into beautiful purple bloom.  I hadn’t even noticed a bud.  No hint, no announcement, no memo.  They had completely succeeded in their failure to alert me to their impending fragile beauty.

Isn’t this sometimes the best surprise?  The ones you don’t even see coming, the ones that blindside you with their perfect simplicity?  There was no anticipation.  No time to even consider how beautifully they may bloom, or what shade of purple they may be.  They simply turned their grass-like stalks toward the sunshine and opened their hidden petals, reveling in only their own unfurling, unconcerned with the pressures or deadlines of anxiously awaiting gardeners.

When it’s your time, will you bloom happily in your garden?  Or will you give in to the worldly expectations surrounding you, blooming too early, being bitten by the cold frost?   Or will you wait just a little too long to follow your dreams, your blooms attacked and wilted quickly by the hot sun?

For fifty one weeks out of the year, they prepare.  Absorbing life from the soil around them, and dreaming of one day opening their petalled windows upward, allowing the sky’s brilliant blue to flood their delicate petals.  They dream.  They hope.  They have silent faith in that perfect spring day so far off, where they will have no choice but to bloom in celebration of the promise that is life.

We, too, have a promise in this life.  We are given seeds, soil and sunlight.  We are also given responsibility.  The responsibility to love others and to have faith in something invisible and larger than ourselves.  Like my crocus bulbs, we must grow and swell with love, hoping blindly that the day will come, when we will be hand-picked, lifted out of the cool soil to bloom in the glorious light that ends this life, and begins an unexpected brilliant new life in an eternal garden.

So take this time to prepare, to grow, to absorb and to hope.  After what may seem like an insurmountable lifetime of pain, hurt, frustrations and unanswered prayers, one day we just might awaken above these worldly afflictions, to find that we are abloom in a brand new place.  We may find that our humble week of bloom time will far exceed the months of frost, snow, rain, mud and heat we have endured.  All the pain and hurt will be worth it, for as we open our eyes to the world above us, we will have no choice but to allow the warm sunshine to penetrate our hearts.

May we all have faith that our day of full bloom isn’t far off, and is coaxed ever closer by our faithful growth, the slowly warming earth around us and the brave dream of sprouting into the unknown world above us.

Out with the Old, In with the New

It’s time.  Out with the old and in with the new.

I had procrastinated long enough, hoping to get a new composter in time to still salvage what was left of last year’s old growth in my flower garden, with the dream of turning it into sweet black compost to use this spring.  You can read more about my indecision about composters here.  But today, with the sun shining warmly, short sleeves rolled up, and the first sweat of this spring trickling down my brow, I knew that today I had to do some serious spring cleaning in my garden.

All winter, they stood like statues.  Like beautiful, blooming memories that were cemented purposefully in my garden, as if trying to prove that they really did bloom last summer in profusion.  Only with the casting process of fall and winter, their green life had been stolen, their blooms hardened into black, brittle seed pods, their summer beauty lost to only the remaining brown sticks and stems.

Nepeta "Walker's Low" in the height of its bloom last summer.

Their once-fluttering leaves lay sadly in the ground below them, thick rugs of decomposing, blackish muck.  Nepeta “Walker’s Low” catmint was strung out in a thick mat upon the ground, its bunches of green mint-like leaves and tiny lavender blooms only a distant memory now.

There were the tender annuals, planted carefully that bloomed unrelentlessly all summer.  My beloved Gomphrena “Fireworks” was a favorite.  When I picked it up from the nursery, its tag said it would grow to a height of 36”!  So astonished with this info on its tag, I even asked the nursery’s owner if that must be a mistake.  It turned out, it wasn’t and it bloomed all summer in explosions of pink fireworks 3 feet above my garden bed.

A "Hot Summer" coneflower bursting into full bloom last summer.

And there were the trusty old standby’s, clumps of coneflowers and black eyed susans, standing tall, with only seed pods left upon their thick stems.  Fuzzy lamb’s ears had been diminished, shrunken down tight upon the soil in wilted, wet, grayish green layers of leaves, all former fuzziness disappeared.  They appeared stuck in a wet embrace with the ground, suctioned tight by the forces of gravity, moisture and once heavy snow atop.

Today, it was time to go out with the old and let the new have a fighting chance in my garden.  I pruned, pulled, trimmed and cut back all the old foliage that reminded me of last year’s garden.  My new sprouts need a fresh slate, without the constrictions and remnants of last summer to bend their growth, inhibit their new shoots or block the sun’s warm light.  My garden needed a fresh new start, with room to grow.

We all need a little spring cleaning here and there.  A time to say goodbye to the past, its memories, its promises and its regrets.  To create for ourselves a little hope in our gardens of life, that we can start over every season, every year and even every day.  Pull back the old vines and weeds that are holding you back from growth, yank them out of the thawing soil and give your new dreams and aspirations a chance to sprout, to spring to life and to grow into something bigger than you could have ever imagined.

After I cut all the old growth out of my garden today, I was amazed with what is already beginning to sprout again.  Yet, it took my trimming, pulling and cleaning to reveal that my old perennial friends are still there, beneath the rubbish and leaves of last summer, ready to spring forth with growth again this year.  My hardy geranium “Orion” had new green leaves just barely peeking out from its clump.  I was surprised to see my tall, purple alliums had also poked their noses up out of the soil for some fresh air.  Even my Helenium “Mardi Gras” had a few delicate maroon leaves just barely visible.  But I had to get rid of the old to see the new and appreciate the journey it is just beginning.

Hardy Geranium "Orion" just beginning to unfurl its brand new, fuzzy green leaves.

Fresh, new green sprouts!

If you look very closely, you can even see the maroon tops of new growth on my Helenium "Mardi Gras!"

What will you find as you begin a little spring cleaning yourself?  You may find your dreams are already sprouting, they were just hidden within all the old surrounding them.  So pull back your fears and failings, your past goals and desires and give in to the new dreams that you have for yourself.  I think you’ll find they may be well on their way, all they need is a little spring sunshine, some room to grow and a gardener tending to your perennial garden of life.

Peek-A-Boo With the Sunshine

The sun was warm today.  Bright and full of hope that spring may be right around the bend, I couldn’t help but get lost in springtime promises, all thoughts of cold and snow burnt out by warm sunshine reddening my winter white skin.  I’ve been dreaming of the warm days ahead that will coax my spring bulbs from their wintery homes beneath the melting snow into the warmth of the day’s sun.

Last summer I enjoyed the first season of a few clumps of Black-Eyed Susans that I had carefully dug out of my mother’s overflowing flower garden to transplant into my own.  The idea of sharing a garden, extending its profusion, honoring its humble beginnings where my mother had lovingly planted it first, watered and encouraged it into full bloom, is an idea that is so magical to me.  The thought that I can have a piece of that for many years to come is enchanting.  A plant reincarnated, living two lives at once, multiplied exponentially.

I was absolutely taken with my newly transplanted yellow blooms.  They were superstars shining brightly in my garden.  Blooming all summer, without a fuss about water, weeds or bugs, they simply burst into full bloom as if happy just for the sun’s light every day.

I loved watching them from bud to full bloom.  Their buds would begin to unfurl, petalled fingers one at a time, very slowly opening, as if just shyly peeking into the unimaginably bright sunlight for the first moment.

The next day a few more petalled fingers would loose their tight grip on the bud, letting a little more sunshine in.

They came to remind me of child-like buds playing peek-a-boo in my garden with each other.  One would peek out over this way, one over here would still be clenched tightly, wound up in its bud’s newness.

Day by day, they slowly released their tight grip upon each other.  Until that glorious day when they finally gave in to the sun’s gentle beckoning and unfolded completely, bright yellow petals curled open to their new summer life in my garden.  Complete with bumble bees, hummingbirds and kitties resting in their cool shade.

I wonder if they dreamed sunny dreams of their long lost cousins, separated a year ago from my mother’s country garden on the hill above town.  Maybe a delicate butterfly, aloft on the gentle breeze would light upon them, and whisper news of their previous garden home, of grandkids running in joy around them, raccoons stealthily creeping through them at night with a plan up their sleeves and cool pond water showers from sprinklers on summer afternoons.

I like to think they brought a bit of the country here to my garden in the heart of town.

Noses in the Roses

Roses.  It seems I’m not the only one that likes them around here.  Blame it on their sultry good looks, their vibrant, bright colors, their princessly charm on thorn-defended thrones . . . or maybe more accurately, their delectable deliciousness.

I prune them ever so carefully.  Deadhead them precisely down to the next “leaf of three.”  I savor their slightly irridescent hues as they begin to unfold their first delicate petal.  I dream of what they will look like the next morning, unfolded fully in the dewy light of morning.

Then just like that . . . they’re gone.  Disappeared.  Only a memory, that begins to feel more like a Ghost of Gardens Past.

A beautiful rose, although not from my garden. My roses are dessimated to nothing more than thorny, sheared-off sticks.

My roses become victims to my garden’s fiercest predator:  the mule deer. An unlikely culprit, you may think.  However, anyone who’s had the disdain of gardening in the land of deer knows my agony.  Think bitten off blooms, tasty annuals pulled right out of the ground, shaken into a mess of dirt and roots, unearthed by a hungry deer.  Hoofs digging, pawing at newly planted perennials, shrub branches stripped clean of leaves, and roses diminished to nothing more than a few bare sticks jutting out of the ground.

My shrub roses take the hardest hit.  What is it about roses?  Apparently, we humans are not their only fans.  One day I will notice a brand new bud, near to bursting open into bloom.  The next day I will find nothing but gnawed off stems, the buds have been completely stolen, eaten in their entirety.  Not even the meager hint of a rose hip remains to proclaim that it really was there, sitting atop that tall stem just the day before.

The beautiful rose bloom I wish for my garden!

By the end of summer, my poor shrubs begin to look like I’ve completely lost my marbles, and all respect for pruning etiquette.  They are sheared off like a chainsaw taken haphazardly to knicking this stem off, then this one, and this one until all that remains is thorny short stems, lacking even the green of a single leaf.  Sounds pretty, doesn’t it?  That’s exactly what I had in mind when I bought my Double Knock Out Rosa Radtko.

Recently, I’ve also happened upon the discovery that deer aren’t the only ones attracted to tasty roses.  I had a beautiful group of three deep red roses in a vase with a few stems of baby’s breath and Eucalyptus leaves on my table.  They were a bright spot in an otherwise dull February.  I mixed the attached plant food into the water and couldn’t believe it when they lasted over a week on my counter.

But it wasn’t until their very last hurrah on my table when Max realized the secret they had been hiding all along:  water!  (And just for the record, my cats are provided with fresh water, although they seem to prefer to drink out of the toilets.)   He too, seems to like diving right into a bunch of scented roses, parting them roughly with his furry face to get a drink of the florist-solution-sweetened water.  I only hope that stuff isn’t poisonous.

Max hasn’t realized that he’s in such close proximity of this “rose water” stuff yet.

Hmmmmmm, is that water I smell? Going in for the kill.  Nothing like some warm, flower stem infused, stale water to drink.

So much for my roses!

Flower? Pineapple? Princess.

My glorious bee balm: part flower, part pineaapple, part "specimen."

I don’t remember it multiplying in height.  But one day last summer, I found myself looking eye-to-eye with one of the newest additions to my flower garden, my bee balm specimen.  I call it a “specimen” because no horticulture magazine, no mail-order catalog, no greenhouse would ever believe a bee balm plant would outgrow it’s advertised 36″ height description into a stand of miniature balm trees eye level with its own gardner.

This was quite a specimen.  Tall and strong.  I couldn’t help but applaud myself for finding what must have been a most perfectly suitable growing place in my garden in which to plant this bee balm root.   And that’s exactly what it started out as just the summer before:  a meager, spindly root, shipped not-so-carefully in purple gardening fabric, cardboard and bubble wrap.   It was my mail-order experiment from a faraway, foreign greenhouse land.

My, oh my, how my little “Raspberry Wine” monarda had grown from such humble beginnings!  From its strong, thick, early spring shoots I cut beautiful greens to complement jars filled with spring’s first purple iris.  A little later, its tall green stems and spicy-scented, sworded leaves joined orange coneflowers and green-centered rudbeckias.  But would anything more ever come of my stand of bee balm trees?

A floral firework of radical realms

I was worried that the seed catalog must have hastily mislabeled this giant.  Would this colossal plant be content with just its greenery, refusing to bloom due to its steroid-seemingly induced growth spurt?

Then one day, it rose above my head, a cluster of purplish-green leaves squeezed upward with a glorious spray of hot pink shooting from the top of the bunch like a fuzzy, pollen-encrusted headdress upon a garden princess.  A floral firework of radical realms.  It was glorious in its absolute uniqueness.  I had never seen its likeness, mostly just leaves, but bright tinted leaves topped with a crown that was part flower, part pineapple, part “specimen.”

If bee balm had a facebook page, at that very moment I became a fan and announced it to the world by hitting the “like” button.